Michael Pollan: New food rules, but no need to be neurotic

Food Rules author Michael Pollan. Photo: Fran Collin

Sometimes a spoonful of sugar does, indeed, make the medicine go down. Though you won’t find that catchphrase in the just-released hardcover edition of Food RulesMichael Pollan‘s best-selling little eater’s manual.

Food Rules does sport the whimsical and witty illustrations of well-known artist Maira Kalman, however. And the new book also boasts 19 new rules — many gleaned from eaters around the country that Pollan wished he had thought of and included the first time around.

Take two is again full of commonsense kitchen wisdom such as If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not hungry; and When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.

The takeaway message: food need not be complicated, and the act of eating is as much about pleasure and communion as it is about nutrition and health. In other words: lighten up a little and enjoy your dinner.

In case you’ve been living under a compost pile, Pollan is a champion of small-scale, sustainable farming, humanely-raised livestock, and access to real food for all. A foe of what he calls highly-processed, edible food-like substances, Pollan’s food philosophy is famously simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

He is the author of five previous books including the popular In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Botany of Desire, and he writes regularly about food matters for The New York Times. Pollan is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley and co-instructor of the Chez Panisse Foundation funded Edible Education 101 at Cal this fall.

We talked, briefly, following an Edible Education lecture given by former Berkeley School Lunch Lady Ann Cooper, whom Pollan introduced before taking her to dinner at — where else? — Chez Panisse. And we spoke again the next day, at length, via phone.

Pollan, 56, dedicates his latest work to his mother, former New York Magazine style columnist Corky Pollan, “who always knew butter is better for you than margarine.” He lives in North Berkeley with his wife, the artist Judith Belzer. His formerly picky eater son, Isaac, recently dispatched to Wesleyan, misses family meals.

Why Food Rules Two?

I wanted to work on a more visual version of Food Rules to reach more people and continue the conversation that the first edition started. My wife and I saw an exhibit of Maira Kalman’s work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and Judith suggested we collaborate.

When you look at Maira’s work — like a painting of a Snickers bar on a pink ground or a framed collection of onion rings — it often manages to be poignant, funny, and sad all at the same time.

Eating is important to her but she doesn’t take food too seriously and is not politically correct about it in the least. We’re already neurotic enough about our eating; I wanted this book to be fun while it covered some serious ground.

Can you give us insider insights into Edible Education 101?

It’s been an interesting experience for me personally because I’ve not taught undergraduates before, though I should note my co-instructor Nikki Henderson is carrying most of the load as I’m technically on leave. I’ve found the students terrific; they ask questions that are sharp but well phrased and polite. In a community meeting with corporate food people you might expect to hear the Berkeley hiss, but there’s been none of that. They’re an engaged and impressive group.

We’ve learned things too. We might have had a more effective dialogue in the case of the corporate food lecture, which included Wal-Mart, if it hadn’t been webcast. That had an inhibiting effect on the conversation. I’m also used to three-hour classes; these 90-minute ones go by really fast. I think they work best when we have just one guest so we can really drill down and expound on the issues. At this stage of the semester I wouldn’t be sorry if one of our guests had to cancel just so we had some time for reviewing and contextualizing the material with the students.

And, it has to be said, what a gift this is from the Chez Panisse Foundation to the community as well as the students. The list of speakers and the subjects covered is impressive.

Has interest in the food movement peaked in the popular culture?

It’s hard to know where we are right now but I don’t think so. I remember when I was trying to finish The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006, I thought I was coming to the subject a little late. It took me forever to finish that book. I do feel a sense of urgency to keep writing about food. We’re just beginning to see the impact of our food choices on health care and insurance costs — obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are soaring — and we need to keep the pressure on the government and corporations for change. If anything, I only see the conversation deepening, and that’s especially encouraging given the economic situation since 2008.

Do you ever want to write about something other than food?

I haven’t always written about food but I find it’s a good place to talk about other things like the environment, the economy, health, culture, and politics. Food is a very big tent as subjects go. That’s why it’s held my interest.

#76: Place a Bouquet of Flowers on the Table and Everything Will Taste Twice as Good. Illustration: Copyright (c) Maira Kalman 2011. Reprinted with permission from The Penguin Press from FOOD RULES by Michael Pollan.

How — and what — do you cook?

I make simple food. I grill more nights than I don’t and my wife and I typically cook together. We work well in the kitchen together. One of us makes the main and the other the sides. We’re fortunate to work from home so we’re able to make dishes that require slow cooking like braises and soups.

Some of our readers view you as an elitist foodie and roll their eyes at such stories as your New York Times Magazine piece, The 36-Hour Dinner Party. Is that unfair?

I reject that characterization while I’m sensitive to the fact that not everybody has access to good food. I appreciate that food and class are intimately tied: that story is set in Napa, which implies a lot of leisure in certain circles. But I don’t think Americans should be afraid of aestheticism; as a culture some times we can have an aversion to pleasure.

To eat healthily in this country — by which I mean consuming food that contributes both to the eater’s health as well as to the health of the environment — costs more than it does to eat poorly. That situation is a public policy problem. We need farm policies that will correct this imbalance, so that healthy calories can compete with unhealthy ones.

There is no question that there is an elite strand within the food movement, but a lot of social change movements in this country — I’m thinking of abolitionists, women’s suffrage, and civil rights as examples — have been started by the affluent because they have the leisure and resources to do so.

As a recognized leader in the food movement how do you handle the rock-star status?

A sense of humor helps, so does remembering that this type of attention is fleeting. And regardless of what people say about my books, the next morning I still have to get up and face the page and come up with sentences I like. All that other stuff doesn’t help with writing, which can be incredibly hard.

What’s the subject of your next book?

It’s about the transformation of food through cooking methods such as baking, fermentation, and cooking with liquids or heat. So it focuses on the science of cooking, the classical elements; I’ve been doing research about fire, for instance. It should be out in early 2013.

What gives you hope on the food front?

I see movement happening all around the country, like grass-fed beef in supermarkets and young people taking up farming. I’m now asked to speak in places like Troy, New York, Cleveland, and Lubbock, Texas. They aren’t typical food towns. People in their 20s are as engaged with this issue as their parents, whether it’s for health, the environment, or both. I have a lot of faith that as consumers we can change things by voting with our forks.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Food day: Growing a movement around what we eat [10.21.11]
Nikki Henderson: On the frontlines of edible education [08.19.11]
Fundraising underpins Chez Panisse’s birthday festivities [08.1.11]
Tickets expected to go fast for Michael Pollan’s food class [07.28.11]
Michael Pollan wants your food stories [02.24.11]
Michael Pollan speaks on egg recall [08.24.10]
Michael Pollan talks Food Rules at Ferry Building [01.23.10]
Michael Pollan to talk food rules with Oprah [01.20.10]
Michael Pollan breezes through The Daily Show [01.07.10]

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  • Sue

    I’m glad Berkeley has a “celebrity” like Michael Pollan.  LA can keep the Kardashians!  I’ll be buying this book and I am sure I will learn some sensible things about food.  Reminders really, I think we know more than we admit and just get lazy when eating our favorite foods.

  • While I do appreciate what he stands for, he has always rubbed me the wrong way in interviews or sitting next to him in restaurants.  Just a bit sanctimonious for me.  Food Rules?  and Food Rules redux?  I have enough rules in my life, thanks.  I’d rather he write a series of books glorifying our local farmer’s markets.  (ducks from reflexive Berkeleyian criticisms to follow)

  • jday

    you can’t really blame a mainstream writer trying for one more hit. a quick read probably suffices, though often there’s a gem or two

  • Meliflaw

    It’s my impression that the majority of mainstream nonfiction books–especially those of the “gift” variety–could be reduced to a magazine article, and not miss a crumb of wisdom. At least this one has the Kalman illustrations.

    (Re. “Food Rules”: not that many books are titled by the author; that’s the publisher’s turf.)

  • Berkeley resident

    I have not seen his interviews or sat next to him but read all his books so far and he seems to just repackage and repeat the same ideas which I mostly agree with and try to incorporate into my life but I wonder if the new book includes any new concepts and ideas.

  • Eschmitt3

    I think Michael is a great writer and he’s focusing on an issue that deserves more attention. We’re lucky to have him here in Berkeley.

  • Anonymous

    I like Mr. Pollan’s books (I’ve read several), I also like Gary Nabhan’s “Coming Home to Eat”, (he has written other excellent books about food & where our food comes from as well) and Joan Dye Gussow’s “This Organic Life” , (she has a Ph.D in nutrition, &  taught at a NY university for years).   Both of these writers have written, worked & lectured on the same topics as Mr. Pollan, particularly Ms. Gussow.  Now in her 70’s/early 80’s she continues to grow as much of her own food as possible on a small town lot along the Hudson river in NY.   Mr. Pollan is one of a number of people writing on these topics, I wish they would get some of the recognition that he has gotten.

    Harold McGee, author of the “Science and Lore of Cooking”, (out in its 2nd revised edition) has already written an excellent book/reference on the topics of Mr. Pollan’s next book.  I’m sure there’s always room for another.

  • Jeremy Bentham

    “There is no question that there is an elite strand within the food
    movement, but a lot of social change movements in this country — I’m
    thinking of abolitionists, women’s suffrage, and civil rights as
    examples — have been started by the affluent because they have the
    leisure and resources to do so.”

    So according to Pollan the civil right movement and abolitionist movement were started by the “elites”. This statement is pure noblesse oblige and borders on crypto-fascism.

    Mr. Pollan is a hypocrite. Despite his famous admonition to  “Eat food…Not too much…Mostly plants.” he has admitted publicly that his family eats meat every day.

    Pollan also repeatedly misleads the public about the origin and processing of the food he advocates. The vast majority of so-called grass fed beef in the USA is slaughtered at USDA-inspected facilities that fatten cows with potato byproducts,  fermentation byproducts, processed corn, and/or processed grain. These slaughterhouses are under no legal obligation to provide accurate information about what they feed cattle. When inspected, these facilities ROUTINELY fail to stun cows resulting in the butchering of living conscious animals. So when you bite into that “grass-fed” burger or steak I hope you can imagine the writhing pain of a conscious animal that has had its legs hacked off while suspended from a hook. Would you be upset if someone did this to your puppy or your kitty cat?

    Pollan also never fails to skirt the issue of how grass fed brisket or nut-fed porchetta could possibly feed the SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE on this planet.